I didn’t know my cousin Jimmy’s father, although I knew his name: Red Conrey. He and Aunt T divorced before I was born and, in the way of children, I simply accepted the answer I received when I asked why Jimmy didn’t live with Aunt T and Uncle Harold: “Your aunt was married to Mr. Conrey, but they aren’t married any more. Jimmy lives with his dad.”
Still, the family was close, and there didn’t seem to be any lingering resentments. Each time she arrived from New York, Aunt T made a point of visiting Jimmy at his home in another town, or he came to stay with my grandparents.
Red was working as a house painter when he and Thelma married. Raised in nearby Knoxville, he may have met her there after she graduated from high school and began working at the Marion County Treasurer’s office. When my cousin Jimmy was born, Red was as proud as any father could be. One of the earliest photos of Jimmy, taken in July, 1938, shows him in his father’s arms.
Unfortunately, the photo accompanied a headline that had all of south-central Iowa in an uproar.
Des Moines Register, July 22, 1938
The mother being sent to prison was, in fact, my Aunt T. On Thursday, July 21 — only a day before the photo of Jimmy and Red was taken — District Judge Norman R. Hays accepted her plea of guilty to charges of embezzlement, and sentenced her to ten years in the Iowa Women’s Reformatory in Rockwell City.
He also imposed a fine of $2,098.58: an amount the Des Moines Register reported as being “to the penny the amount Mrs. Conrey was charged with taking from the Treasurer’s office through defalcations over a 15-month period.”
Needless to say, the shock to the town and to her own family — including my father, who was her elder brother — was exceeded only by the shock experienced by her husband. After pleas for clemency failed and sentence had been passed, Red held my cousin Jimmy in his arms and said:
I didn’t know a thing about this ’til the sheriff and the county attorney came out last night. “We’ve got bad news for you,” they said. I said, “All right, what is it? ” I supposed I was in trouble.
Then they said, “It’s about Thelma. It’s trouble over the funds at the courthouse. We’re keeping her at Hotel Marion tonight. Come in tomorrow. We wanted to tell you so you could make arrangements to take care of the baby.”
Conrey’s mother, with whom the couple shared a home, began making plans to feed and care for Jimmy, while Mrs. Anna Condaree, the bailiff, escorted Aunt T to the hotel: only a block from the courthouse.
The Hotel Marion, Knoxville, Iowa
Events seem to have moved quickly in those days. After a quiet, ongoing investigation, the arrest apparently took place on Wednesday. On Thursday, a bench trial was held, and the sentence imposed. That same day, in the evening, Thelma and Red bid one another farewell at the Hotel Marion. On Friday, Sheriff Paul Grundman and Baliff Condaree took her to Rockwell City, where she began serving her sentence.
Aunt T and Red bidding farewell at the Hotel Marion (Des Moines Register staff photographer)
In the course of the hearing, County Attorney Clarence Kading said he was aware of the hardship imprisonment would bring to the Conreys’ infant son, but he was unwilling to recommend a bench parole in light of circumstances beyond those involving my aunt. Judge Hays agreed. It was, after all, the second time in three years that money had been embezzled from the County Treasurer’s office.
William Johns of Knoxville recently had been paroled from the state penitentiary at Fort Madison after serving four months for embezzlement. While my aunt had served in the tax office during the time that Johns was commiting his own crimes, she denied any connection with his embezzlement in her confession, and there was no evidence to the contrary.
In any event, both the prosecutor and the judge seemed convinced that a stiff sentence might help to prevent yet a third embezzlement, whatever the consequences for the young Conrey family.
In her signed confession, Aunt T admitted taking tax payments which she received at the counter in the treasurer’s office, then balancing accounts by destroying the receipt stubs. Eventually, an audit of duplicate stubs revealed the shortage.
Highly intelligent, a good student, and a quiet, efficient employee in the treasurer’s office, there seemed no explanation for her behavior. Questions swirled around the town. Why did she do it? And where did the money go?
“I talked to Mrs. Conrey at length about that,” Kading said. “She used some of it to help out her parents and their family, but they didn’t know where the money came from. And I’m positive her own husband never knew anything about the embezzlements. Apparently, she just spent it here and there as she took it.”
After entering the reformatory, Aunt T provided her own explanation for how it happened:
It used to be that I was almost afraid to make change for customers. I was afraid I would make a mistake, and we would balance up short. I wouldn’t even have taken a postage stamp.
Then I became thoroughly experienced with the work. The routine was easy, and I was confident in my own ability. I felt more secure in my job, and I began to buy things I hadn’t been able to afford before. Sometimes I let my smaller bills run along a little, but usually I paid up promptly.
But one day, shortly before pay day, I needed a little extra money for some incidental expense. While I was thinking about it, a customer came in and made a small tax payment. I took the payment and put it in the drawer. There was no one else around at the moment, and when the customer left, I began thinking about it.
I knew there were ways that money could be taken from a treasurer’s office and the shortage covered up for a long period of time. One way is to hold out the tax receipt stub and keep the money from the cash drawer. Of course there is a duplicate, which finally will show the shortage. But that usually isn’t discovered until the checker comes around. There was plenty of time to put back the money after pay day.
I slipped the tax receipt stub in my purse, and took the sum it represented from the cash drawer.
That’s the way it got started.I saved the receipt stubs carefully at first, hoping that with the next pay day, I could pay back the balance. Then, one day as I walked home from work, I realized I had fallen into something from which I couldn’t escape. The little bunch of tax receipt stubs had reached a hopeless total. I now couldn’t even bear to add them up.
I was desperate, and wanted to drive what I was doing out of my mind. I gathered up the stubs and tore them up. I knew from that day I never could repay what I had taken, that this moment would arrive. I knew the check would find the shortage, and I knew that I would confess. But I forced all that into the other part of my mind and went on, trying to make ourselves a home.
Now I feel better than I have at any time since I pocketed that first receipt stub. I am glad I am here. My baby is in good hands at home. From now on, I’m going to try to cut down my sentence with good behavior.
Of all the surprises attached to the story of Aunt T’s life as a convicted criminal, perhaps none was more intriguing than the glimpse it provided into life at a women’s reformatory in the late 1930s.
Three years before her arrival there, the Des Moines Register published a feature article titled, “Iowa Prison Has No Walls, Armed Guards, or Real Bars.” It also preferred to be known as a reformatory rather than as a prison: a choice meant to emphasize its intent to reform individuals, returning them to society as responsible, functioning citizens.
Superintendent E. Pauline Johnston maintained an open door policy where her girls were concerned, and involved herself with each of the inmates from arrival to departure — a task made easier by a maximum capacity of only 78 women.
Superintendent Johnston introduces Aunt T (on the right) to her new routines (Des Moines Register staff photographer)
A series of photos published by the Register, accompanied by snippets from letters written to families and personal recollections, gives a sense of life within the confines of Lanedale, as the collection of farms and cottages was known.
My “cell” isn’t barred at all, but is very much like my room at home. After the day’s work I can read or knit in my room, or join a group of girls at the radio. Our superintendent, E. Pauline Johnston, selects good programs by a master control in her office. Good reading material is provided by a library.
Dear Folks: I’m finally learning farm life at — of all places — the women’s reformatory. I have to help milk part of the time. We’re milking 21 cows. Farming is a real business here, and showed a profit of more than $3,000 two years ago, although it lost $6,000 last year. There are nearly 40 cows and more than 100 hogs to take care of.
P.B.X. instruction is provided by the Rockwell City telephone exchange for girls who may want to be telephone operators after leaving the institution. The girls can learn typing and shorthand if they wish to seek office jobs later.
We don’t expect to give the symphonies any competition, but we get music instruction if we want it and have organized an orchestra that rehearses weekly.
We have a community choir which sings at weekly meetings, too. A minister comes from one of the Rockwell City churches each Sunday, rotating in order, so that all of us can hear preachers from churches in which we were reared. Most of us look forward to these Sunday meetings.
Interest in the case continued for some time. On July 31, the Des Moines Register published an additional photo of Aunt T, holding the August issue of Pictorial Review: a woman’s magazine that often portrayed sweet children on its cover. Her grief at being separated from Jimmy was widely-reported and just as widely discussed. While regulations would have allowed her to see Jimmy every thirty days, whether those visits took place remains uncertain.
(Des Moines Register staff photo – John Naegle)
Cover of the Pictorial Review, Aunt T is holding ~ August, 1938
What is certain is that, according to 1940 Census data, Aunt T had been granted early release, and once again was living with her parents and younger siblings.
While her husband initially proclaimed his loyalty, saying, “This is an awful blow, but I’m going to stick by my wife. When she gets out, we are going to go away and get a new start,” the new start wasn’t to be. By 1940, they were divorced.
Eventually, Aunt T moved to Rock Island, where she served out the terms of her probation working as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. By 1946, no longer on probation, she made the move to New York.
When I was born in October of that year, my parents received a congratulatory note written in my aunt’s lovely, cursive hand. I found the note last week, and noticed, for the first time, that it had been signed, “Thelma and Bill.” No doubt my parents knew Bill, but no living relative remembers his identity, and I remember only my Uncle Harold: the funny, cigar-chewing, New Jersey native who loved Aunt T, liked kids, cracked jokes, and enjoyed telling us he was “in garbage.”
When Aunt T entered the reformatory, Red told a reporter,”The baby never will know about it.”
Whether — or when — Jimmy was told his mother’s story, I can’t say. But for more than sixty years, I never knew. Neither parents, nor grandparents, nor neighbors, nor (most remarkably) any adult in that small, sometimes gossipy Iowa town uttered a single word to disturb my relationship with my aunt. It was as though a wonderful, tender conspiracy had formed to shield me from the unhappy facts. By the time an off-handed reference by my mother to “what Thelma went through” roused my curiosity, I was old enough, and experienced enough, to appreciate the complexity of what I found.
Today, rather than being disillusioned by my aunt’s imperfections or shocked by her behavior, I feel as though I understand her more fully: her attentiveness; her delight in sharing time with a child; her pleasure in gift-giving. Above all, I understand her concern that I learn the lessons of the elephant and pig.
One lesson, of course, is to save for wants, as well as for needs: to feed the delicate, bejeweled and floral-encrusted elephant as well as the pedestrian pig. But something in Aunt T’s note that escaped my childish attention shines today with the light of hard-won wisdom.
“Put this next to your piggy bank,” Aunt T wrote. “When you earn a dollar, put half into your pig for things you’ll need, but put half into your new elephant, for things that will make you happy.”
Today, I have no doubt. For Aunt T, the most important word in that last sentence was “earn.”